Thursday, January 29, 2015

Winter Carnival comes to Brooklyn

Had winter storm Juno not intervened, I would have spent Tuesday night at a college basketball game which was to start at 9:00 p.m., probably would not have ended until about 11;00 so that it would have been after midnight when I finally got home - late hours for this senior citizen.  It's part of a trend that seems to have begun about ten years ago where college football and basketball games start at unusual and sometimes ungodly hours.  Almost without exception there is a one word explanation - television.  Television has, of course, been part of sports for a long time, but it feels like the past decade or so has seen television take over starting times with little, if any, consideration for those actually attending the game.  Sometimes there is even a double whammy, sitting through a night football game in December is bad enough, but it becomes even worse due to lengthy and seemingly unending television time outs.  There's an obvious one word explanation for this as well - money.  The amounts paid by television for broadcasting rights are so huge that they dwarf ticket revenue.  Base ball is also subject to this trend, a major difference from the way things were back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Charles Byrne - President of the Brooklyn Baseball Association - 1883-1897

From the very beginnings of major league baseball and well into the 20th century, gate receipts dominated club revenues, the same way television money does today.  It's not surprising, therefore, that back in the Deadball Era, for example, far more consideration was given to the fan putting down his 50 or 75 cents.  Starting times were set in the late afternoon to accommodate middle class office workers and games typically lasted 90 minutes or so allowing the clientele to get home in time for dinner.  The importance of gate receipts also helped drive the priorities of club owners.  One example was the attention paid to the schedule with every magnate (contemporary term for an owner) clamoring for his share, if not more, of what were known as "plums" - Saturdays and holidays as well as games with the premier clubs which drew large crowds.  It's a tribute to the skills of Charles Ebbets of the Brooklyn club that he could single handily develop a schedule which left the owners satisfied or at least equally dissatisfied.  Because of the prevailing economics, rain outs were even more of a problem since the forced conversion of two games into a single admission doubleheader was a major revenue loss especially for financially marginal clubs.  It's no wonder some owners, regardless of their religious background, became unapologetic "sun worshipers."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle  - 1909

Regardless of the size of the gate receipts, however, home games were played no more than 70-80 days per year, leaving parks vacant over 75% of the time.  Not surprisingly club owners continually sought alternative admission charge worthy events to generate additional income such as the ice skating at Washington Park discussed in the last post.  In 1919, Charles Ebbets reached what was probably a new low, offering local automobile owners the opportunity to store their cars on the sacred sod of Ebbets Field during the winter, confirming, if any confirmation was necessary, the limited parking in the neighborhood.  Obviously the timing of the auto storage proposal was at least partially driven by the difficulty of finding outdoor events during the winter months.  Not long after base ball on ice went by the boards, Brooklyn owner, Charles Byrne decided to bring another winter sport to south Brooklyn.  As with ice base ball, the idea apparently came from a northern neighbor, this time from outside the United States, in Montreal, Canada.  Beginning in 1883, promoters in the Canadian city decided to use winter as a tourist attraction rather than an excuse to avoid the city.  Through 1889, winter carnivals attracted numerous American tourists to Montreal, many of whom chartered special trains for the trip.

Montreal Winter Carnival

One of the events which apparently caught the fancy of the visiting Americans was tobogganing which by the winter of 1885-86 had been successfully transplanted to nearby Orange, New Jersey which, as anyone who has driven I280 in the winter time can testify, doesn't lack for hills.  Although located in Park Slope, Washington Park wasn't quite at that level or levels.  Bringing tobogganing to the home of Brooklyn's base ball club, meant "considerable expense" to construct a slide that started 10 feet above the steps at the 5th Avenue entrance.  Running some 400 feet, including a "declination" of half that distance, the 12 foot wide slide deposited riders on the 3rd Street side where they could begin the long drag back to the start.  Lit by electric lights as well as sometimes by the moon and the stars, the slide's surface had a base of blocks of ice, 10 inches thick which were covered with snow.  The always prudent Byrne also stored excess snow on a shaded portion of the grounds.   Open to the public on afternoons and evenings, admission cost 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children, who were only admitted in the afternoon.  Recognizing that toboggans were probably not a standard household item in Brooklyn, 100 sleds were also available at 50 cents for the evening or afternoon.  Reportedly opening night on December 11, 1886 saw large crowds with Bryne himself enthusiastically helping people into the toboggans, especially when "so many pretty faces [were] present."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle  - 1-9-1919

New innovations seldom go smoothly and tobogganing in urban Brooklyn was no exception.  As with ice base ball, sufficient cold temperatures were essential and there was a five day gap between opening night and the second session.  Another problem (from Byrne's point of view) was the pricing as the 50 cent toboggan rental for a whole evening allowed five people to monopolize a sled for only 10 cents each.  The pricing problem was easily and quickly solved by changing to a per ride charge with tickets available at rates of 50 for $1.00 or 10 for 25 cents.  Addressing the weather was not so simple and by January 9th, the Eagle was warning Brooklynites to enjoy it while they could and a month later the season was declared almost over.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle  - 12-21-1886

However some in the Brooklyn Base Ball Association weren't ready to give up without a fight.  In December of 1887 it was announced that the tobogganing rights had been awarded to one Charles Ebbets.  While in the end Ebbets, like Byrne, couldn't overcome the climate issues, his marketing efforts anticipated his approach as president of the Brooklyn Dodgers for more than a quarter of a century.  Early in 1888 an article in the Eagle reported on an upcoming toboggan outing by the Nassau Athletic Club, an organization that Ebbets help found and lead for its brief existence.  Throughout his 15 year apprenticeship to Charles Byrne, Ebbets was a member of the local Elks Club, a Masonic Lodge, numerous bowling teams plus other social clubs, many of which would sponsor outings to both Washington Park and later Ebbets Field.  Ebbets also offered free admission plus four free toboggan rides to the students and teachers of school 39, symbolic of the many times, he would make his ball park available for free to good causes and/or provide free admission to Brooklyn games to groups of school children and similar groups.  The Brooklyn owner constantly looked for new paid uses for his ball park, but the tobogganing experience probably convinced him that winter events were a non-starter leading perhaps to his temporarily turning Ebbets Field into a parking lot.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"If the Ice Permits"

The deep freeze which recently gripped the northern part of the country doubtless has many base ball players and fans, not to mention historians, thinking wistfully of warmer temperatures and the advent of a new season.   There was, however, a time when at least some base ball players welcomed colder temperatures because it meant they could get back on the field or at least the ice, in games that could only be played "if the ice permits" on frozen ponds and lakes.  As with everything else in base ball history, it's always risky to claim a "first," but one of the earliest reports of base ball on ice appeared in the New York Clipper during the 1860-61 "secession winter."  A brief  account in the January 19th edition of the paper said that on New Year's Day, two Rochester clubs, the Lone Star and Live Oak played a match on ice before 2500 people with the Lone Star Club prevailing 21-8.  Apparently intrigued by the idea, the writer challenged the New York clubs to hold a similar event at New York's Central Park so the upstate clubs would not be "ice-olated in this respect."

Washington Skating Club in action in south Brooklyn

A response wasn't long in coming, but from another quarter, nearby Brooklyn, then an independent city, where the enthusiasm for competitive base ball equaled, if not exceeded, its Manhattan roots. On February 4th, two well known Brooklyn clubs, the Atlantics and Charter Oak Clubs took the ice "upon what is known as Litchfield's pond" near 5th Avenue and 3rd Streets in south Brooklyn.  Understandably attracted by what the reporter claimed was the first such game "in our latitude," a reported crowd of 12000 including 1500 ladies lined the "abutting embankments" (seen in the drawing above ) while others watched from the comfort and relative warmth of their carriages.  Many in the crowd, however, hadn't come to watch, but to skate as both the Clipper and Eagle reported major difficulties in freeing sufficient space on the pond's ten acres of ice so the game could begin.  Finally, however, enough of the ice was cleared to allow the Atlantics resplendent in "red jackets and blue facings" and the Charter Oaks in "plaid" coats to try their hands at this new and novel approach to the old game.

Dickey Pearce

Each team had ten players with the extra position filled by a second catcher, probably in recognition of the risk of passed balls rolling without end on the slippery surface.  Not surprisingly, the conditions favored the "the best skater" over "the best player," but for the Atlantics, they were pretty much one and the same especially the legendary Dickey Pearce who made "several splendid fly catches," demonstrating he was "as good a shortstop on ice, as he is on a summer's day."  As a result the once and future champions triumphed, just as they frequently did "on terra firma," wining 36-27 to earn a silver trophy ball donated by Mr. Litchfield himself, the president of the Fifth Avenue Railroad Company.  Although the game was completed successfully, the conditions deteriorated as "water oozed up" through "ominous cracks and fissures" in the ice.

1865 Ad for Ice Skates

At the end of his account of the Brooklyn contest, the Clipper reporter again challenged the Manhattan clubs to host "a similar exhibition" at Central Park, but perhaps because of the war only a couple of matches were even attempted over the next few years. According an 1865 article in the Clipper there was an 1863 Brooklyn match at an unidentified site and an 1864 Empire-Gotham match at Sylvan Lake in Hoboken which was wisely halted because of breaking ice.  However early in 1865 with the end of the war hopefully in sight and base ball on the brink of a period of major expansion, the Atlantic and Gotham clubs agreed to play a best of three series beginning with a January 12th contest at Capitoline Grounds.  It was certainly an appropriate venue as the Brooklyn facility first opened to host ice skating and then became one of the first enclosed base ball grounds.  Bases for the match consisted of circles of "powdered charcoal" with runners permitted to over run/over skate the base.  A major challenge for the players was the difficulty in planting their feet on the hard and slippery surface.  As a result the pitchers focused on control to limit the number of passed balls while strikers concentrated on placing their hits outside the limited range of the fielders.  In match that featured the Wright brothers (George and Harry) in the Gotham lineup and the aforementioned Pearce as well as Joe Start and Fred Crane playing for the Atlantics, the Brooklyn club skated to an easy 32-5 win.

Sylvan Lake was reportedly at the foot of 7th Street in Hoboken which would put it on the Stevens family property at Castle Point - map by Andrea Magno 

Things were not so easy for the Atlantics in the return match four days later on the Gothams' home turf/ice at Sylvan Lake in Hoboken where the home team triumphed 39-19 in three hours of cold and wind.  Conditions were even worse for the deciding match on January 26th at Washington Pond (Litchfield Pond) in Brooklyn where it took 4 1/2 hours in the bitter cold before the Atlantics prevailed 50-30.  Beyond the obvious discomfort, the frigid temperatures made the surface so hard, the players had an even more difficult than usual time in getting a foothold in the ice.  By this time the reporter (possibly Henry Chadwick) had had more than enough of base ball on ice claiming that unless the weather was milder, the only appeal was the novelty factor which wore quickly wore thin in conditions that made the game "anything, but sport to players or spectators."

If this was meant to sound the death knell for the winter game, the words were anything, but prophetic as almost two decades later the new version of the New York game was still being played, at least in Brooklyn.  In January of 1883, Prospect Park was the scene of at least two matches of teams chosen by major leaguers William Barnie of Baltimore and John "Candy" Nelson of the Metropolitans (Mets).  Reporting on the event, the Clipper thoughtfully provided the following list of major differences between winter and summer base ball.

New York Clipper - February 3, 1883

A year later, the greater New York version of base ball on ice returned to its birthplace in south Brooklyn where the Brooklyn Base Ball Association (ultimately the Brooklyn Dodgers) built the first incarnation of Washington Park  in the same area as the skating pond mentioned earlier.  Accounts in the Clipper and Eagle make no mention of an admission charge, but the best bet is that anyone who wanted to watch or skate (which went on simultaneously) paid for the privilege as club president, Charles Byrne tried maximize the revenue from his all too frequently vacant ball park.  If the Clipper reporter who wrote so disparagingly of base ball on ice in 1865 was indeed the Father of Base Ball himself, Henry Chadwick had changed his tune by 1884.  Not only was Chadwick present, but he along with Brooklyn manager, George Taylor, selected the two "tens" of both amateur and professional players.  Among the professionals were Sam Kimber and John Cassidy of Brooklyn and it's interesting (at least to me) that Brooklyn management was willing to risk injury to their players even though this was long before such prohibitions in major league contracts.  I have a vague recollection from high school in the 1960's that basketball players were prohibited from ice skating during the basketball season as just such a precaution.  The game was close for three innings, but Chawick's team scores seven times in the fourth and added a ridiculous 27 runs in the fifth for a dominating 41-12 victory.

Base ball on ice at Washington Park 

According to Peter Morris' always valuable, A Game of Inches, base ball on ice seems to have gradually died out as the 19th century progressed although there was talk of a league being formed in Cleveland in 1912 if Lake Erie froze sufficiently.  Peter also reports that at least one old time player, James Wood, claimed that base ball on ice's one legacy was the rule change allowing base runners to over run first base.  While the frozen version of base ball didn't last as long at Washington Park,  a few years later the grounds were the unlikely site of another winter sport which will be the subject of the next post.